Cathy Buckle reflects on Zimbabwe’s recent National Shutdown Day, Wednesday 6 July. It was the day social media collapsed. But it was also the day the streets were deserted. The day ordinary citizens took a stand against almost 20 years of government’s strong hand, which Buckle says has created this ‘lost generation’. And despite this renewed hope against ‘heightened’ oppression, there’s a long way to go yet. – Stuart Lowman
By Cathy Buckle*
At five minutes to eight on the morning of Wednesday 6th July 2016 Zimbabweans’ mobile phones stopped clicking, whistling, vibrating and pinging as WhatsApp, Twitter, Skype and internet connections failed. It couldn’t have come at a worse time because this was National Shutdown Day and in an instant everyone’s ability to communicate quickly and cheaply was gone. Coincidental we wondered? It didn’t take long to discover that the silencing of social media was countrywide and no one could provide a technical explanation, or in fact any explanation. Zimbabweans voices might have been silenced but their resolve hadn’t because everyone, everywhere has had enough of the state of affairs in the country.
For a week prior to the shutdown social media was overflowing with messages calling people to stay at home on Wednesday 6th July 2016. Most people didn’t have to think twice. More than 90% of people are unemployed, sitting on pavements selling goods bought across the border in order to survive. The recent announcement that government was to ban the importation of many basic goods from neighbouring countries will cripple the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in a single blow. Protests by traders broke out at Beitbridge border, goods were confiscated, arrests were made, a warehouse was burnt, the border was temporarily closed and the situation continues as I write. The government, however, seemed to be wearing a blindfold and didn’t see the huge problem they had caused to hundreds of thousands of people just trying to make a living.
Next the government announced they were “staggering” the pay dates of civil servants with education and health staff having to wait until the 7th and 14th of the following month and pensioners until the 19th. Civil servants were enraged; negotiations with government yielded nothing; strikes were promised and as month end came and went without pay they began withdrawing their labour. The government, however, still had the blindfold on and a couple of hundred thousand civil servants suddenly had a very big problem to meet month end commitments.
Then there’s the money situation which has turned everyone’s lives into a nightmare. Banks without money, daily withdrawal limits, hours standing in bank queues and tempers flaring everywhere. The government announced they were to introduce a made up currency called Bond Dollars which would be worth the same as US dollars but not recognized anywhere else in the world. There was an uproar, a scramble for whatever cash was left, but still the government had the blindfold on and didn’t seem to realize the dimensions of this huge problem they had created for ordinary people.
#Zimbabwe Citizens brought the country to a standstill today in a stay-away against high unemployment, corruption and cash shortages. TM
— EWN Reporter (@ewnreporter) July 6, 2016
A national reaction to this toxic cocktail of bad decisions was inevitable. In a few weeks ordinary people saw their lives, livelihoods, savings and ability to survive swirling away like steam from a porridge pot. A National Shutdown was called by a few civic activist groups including: #ThisFlag, Tajamuka/ Sesijikile and Occupy Africa Unity Square.
One of the messages calling on people to stay at home on National Shutdown Day said it all: “Should we sit down and let them turn us into poor, naked, hungry, sick mongrels in our own country? Is this the freedom we fought for? Is this the development we worked for? Is this the empowerment we went to school for? This is the time. Let us end this modern day slavery and torture. Let us join hands and shutdown the country on Wednesday 6th July 2016.”
Zimbabwe did shut down and social media, once it was opened up again, showed towns and cities everywhere were mostly deserted: car parks, pavements and main roads virtually empty; normally bustling market places and transport hubs desolate. The press called it the “biggest general strike ever mounted in the history of the country.” Most amazing of all, it was done by ordinary citizens, without a political party, in fact without politics. Police presence was heavy everywhere; tear gas, dogs, baton sticks and boots were evident, captured on cell phones whose WhatsApp and Twitter weren’t working but cameras and videos were. Over 100 people were arrested in areas including Epworth, Mufakose, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls and we watched appalled at brutal beatings by men with helmets, shields and batons of people lying on the ground in submission. As I write there are reports that two Tajamuka activists have subsequently been abducted by armed men.
People power reigned supreme on Wednesday 6th July 2016 and left ordinary people everywhere feeling proud to be Zimbabweans. We stayed home to reflect on the horrors inflicted upon us for the last two decades: hundreds killed in political violence; countless thousands who died of cholera, hunger, malnutrition and HIV Aids; hundreds of thousands who crawled under the border fences to get away; millions of our family and friends who fled to the Diaspora. We stayed at home to pause and remember lost agriculture, lost jobs, lost industry and lost life savings. We stayed away to protest what has become a lost generation in Zimbabwe’s history.
Zimbabwe stayed at home because we want this to stop. There is no doubt that this isn’t over yet.
- Cathy Buckle is the author of four children books. She has also written the non-fictional African Tears, the Zimbabwe Land Invasions, Beyond Tears: Zimbabwe’s tragedy, Innocent Victims: Rescuing the Stranded Animals of Zimbabwe’s Farm Invasions and Sleeping Like a Hare.